Uri, the small tehsil town under Baramula district of Jammu & Kashmir is no less beautiful a place than the rest of the state, especially the valley of Kashmir. With its population of just above 10000 Uri is a small town, may be just an oversized village on the left bank of river Jhelum, known as ‘Vitasta’ in the Vedas. It is barely 10 kms from the line of control or LoC that divides J&K from its other part occupied by Pakistan (PoK) in 1947-48. Its location in close proximity to the LoC is largely responsible for the woes Uri has to face.
The terrain that separates Uri from the adjoining areas of PoK with its numerous rivulets and streams crisscrossing from one side of the LoC to the other makes it a soft target for infiltration by what Pakistan calls ‘non-state actors’. Though the Pakistani establishment terms them as non-state actors it is an open secret even in Pakistan that they are indoctrinated for suicide missions within Indian territory by militant outfits like the Lashkar e Tayaba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) and logistically supported by the Pakistan army and its super state agency the ISI.
The general public in Pakistan is made to believe through state sponsored propaganda that these non-state actors and their mentors from the radicalized Islamist groups are in no way concerned with any agency of the state including the ISI and that their sole motivation is to help fellow Muslims in the Kashmir valley who are victims of atrocities by the Indian security forces. Sections in the media, civil society, ruling as well as opposition politicians and even within the Pakistan army are aware of the truth but are too weak to stand up and challenge the might of the ISI and the fundamentalists.
The situation necessitates presence of an Indian garrison to deal with the uninvited guests, a task made difficult by the fact that people on either side of the LoC look no different from each other and can pass off as locals with ease. Subjecting each and every passerby to strict Id scrutiny is routinely dubbed as harassment by the security forces of the local population. The security forces have to therefore do a tight-rope-walk balancing between strict vigil and a friendly posture even while they know that an innocent looking friendly face may in a split second turn out to be a non-state actor on a suicide mission. Having visited Uri couple of times through the 1990s as part of a study group comprising of senior armed forces officers from different countries sponsored by the National Defence College and later while working as Director in the Ministry of Defence accompanying a group of our Parliamentarians I have seen first hand the rigors of duty the officers and men of the armed forces have to go through in places like Uri and the Forward Defence Locations (FDLs) along the LoC.
Under such trying circumstances king chance and emperor luck are the final arbiters. While the non-state actors and their godfathers across the LoC have to be lucky only once the forces have to be lucky every time. On the morning of 18 September 2016 the army personnel at Uri weren’t lucky. Early in the morning, around 5.30 a.m. when jawans of the Dogra Regiment were to be replaced by their counterparts from Bihar Regiment there were explosions in the transit tents. Initial reports indicate that in a brief span of three minutes at least seventeen grenades were lobbed setting the tents on fire resulting in death of 19 of our brave soldiers and injuring an equal number.
After nearly nine hours of the incident Home Minister Rajnath Singh posted four tweets between 2.23 p.m and 2.26 p.m in which apart from expressing distress at the loss of lives in Uri he said he was ‘deeply disappointed with Pakistan’s continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups’.
Pakistan’s initial reaction was that the attack could have been staged by Indian Intelligence agencies to divert attention from atrocities committed by the armed forces in the valley. Quickly realizing that their reaction was palpably crude, absurd and ridiculous Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gave what he thought could be somewhat refined stance. The attack, he said might have been carried out by angry youth from the valley who were fed up because of violence perpetrated against them by the Indian army. The third and perhaps the least absurd of all was the statement from Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit who was quoted by Dawn stating that ‘the Indian NIA is investigating the matter, we should await the result and not jump the gun’.
Going by past experience Pakistan’s credibility not only in India but also in the whole world is abysmally poor. They touted similar conspiracy theories of ‘self-staging’ after the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai terror attack of 26/11 when the whole world saw a Pakistani citizen Kasab on TV firing randomly at passengers at the CST railway station. The whole world also saw how Osama was found residing with absolute ease in the heavily secured Cantonment town of Abbottabad in Pakistan even in the face of vehement denials by all Pakistani authorities from their former President Parvez Musharraf down to army chief Kiyani and the ISI chief Shuza Pasha under whose protection Laden was actually living.
Let alone we Indians, no one in the world and perhaps many in Pakistan wouldn’t have taken seriously an absurdity that the Indian agencies had staged killing of their own army’s soldiers to divert attention from unrest or alleged atrocities in the valley. After all no one in Pakistan would believe that the ISI staged killing of its school children in Peshawar or lawyers in Quetta to divert attention from any domestic issue or to discredit those whom their army considers ‘bad taliban’. On the contrary Rajnath Singh pointing finger at Pakistan for the attack appears to be absolutely plausible based on preponderance of probability going by Pakistan’s past conduct and denials that have proved unreliable each time in past.
The next question therefore each Indian had (and still has) in mind is, how is India going to react. If Pakistan based militants have dared to tread ten kilometers deep on the Indian side of LoC and have attacked an army post killing 19 soldiers the mischief certainly can’t go un-retaliated. The demand for swift and strict retaliation became shriller especially from die-hard supporters of Narendra Modi because of his claims during the election campaign in 2014 of strong muscular military Indian response in case of any 26/11 type misadventure from Pakistan if he became the Prime Minister. Since most of such noises are made on social media circulating sans any national boundaries cyber warriors from Pakistan also appeared soon with even shriller cries of war.
Mercifully sober voices from sensible sections of Pakistan soon overshadowed belligerent ranting by petty politicians and cyber warriors. Thus on 21 Sept 2016 Pakistan’s esteemed daily newspaper Dawn published a joint statement by three former foreign secretaries Inam Ul Haq, Riaz Khokhar and Riaz Mohammad Khan and a former National Security Advisor Retired Maj Gen Mahmud Durrani calling upon their government to dissociate from all militant groups and to speed up the trial of the Mumbai blast accused to prove to the world that Pakistan’s commitment to fight terror isn’t weak. A day later on 22 September 2016 Dawn published another statement by Zahid Saeed President of Karachi’s Association of Trade and Industry. “Despite multiple problems”, Zahid Saeed said, “India has a positive image and every country wants to invest there. Pakistan’s economic woes relate to our adverse global perception”. These statements and the latest statement by High Commissioner Abdul Basit suggest that even seasoned career diplomats and educated Pakistani citizens do not fully endorse their government’s claims of noninvolvement in the terror attacks against India.
Two basic questions still remain relevant. First, how should India react, and, second, is war an option or was war being considered as an option post Uri. Second question first. A full-scale war with Pakistan as a response to a militant attack with moral, material or logistic support by Pakistan based fundamentalists or the ISI can never be a justifiable reaction. As far as I can guess full scale war has never been considered as an option now or after the earlier incidents. The only exception perhaps was the attack on Indian Parliament when the then PM Bajpayee had talked of ‘aar paar ki ldai’, an idea that had to be dropped because of over three weeks taken in mobilizing the troops on the Punjab and Rajasthan border by which time Parvez Musharraf the President of Pakistan had in his address to the nation pledged elimination of all terror infrastructure from his country and the subsequent US pressure or persuasion to stand down.
War not being an option doesn’t mean ‘no option’ at all. Between the two extremes there exists a huge of space and a wide range of doables out of which options have to be picked up, examined and exercised. These options are diplomatic, economic and military in nature. The diplomatic option to isolate Pakistan in the world community was indicated by PM Modi in his Kozhikode address to the BJP national executive. The economic options suggested by various quarters are withdrawing MFN status from Pakistan and curbing the unofficial trade Pakistan has with us via Dubai. There is also talk of abrogating the Indus water treaty or implementing its provisions in such a manner that Pakistan is starved of water for its agricultural needs.
I have my own reservations about efficacy and desirability of each of these options. In so far as the diplomatic option of isolating Pakistan is concerned it may not succeed in full measure. World diplomacy rests not so much on ethics and morality as on the pursuit of national interest of each country. The whole world may be fully convinced that Pakistan is spreading terror through state support and still may not shun Pakistan or may even embrace Pakistan if that serves their national interests better. That is how we see Russian troops landing in Pakistan ironically for joint anti terror exercise or we see China declaring its support to Pakistan in case of conflict with India. In the world of diplomacy isolation of a country may be enforced by a powerful nation but the attempt doesn’t succeed if asked for on grounds of ethics and morality. It has never happened.
The economic options too have their limits. Those who advocate these options never convincingly explain how these steps may ensure that there is no recurrence of incidents like 26/11, Pathankot or Uri. Besides these measures hit the common man, the poor farmers in Pakistan more than they hit the plotters and perpetrators of such incidents. If our objective is to ensure non-recurrence of such incidents even through retaliatory approach we need not plan any action that may hit the common man in Pakistan who is already a victim of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and disease due to callous indifference and misplaced priorities of their meek government, overpowering army and unscrupulous clergy. Majority of these poor people if subjected to any suffering because of action taken by India may only benefit the likes of Hafiz Sayeed, Masud Azhar and their patrons in the Pakistan army or the ISI.
Surprisingly all talks of a military option begin and end with the idea of a full scale war which apart from being a foolhardy step is sure to result in massive hardships for the common man in both the countries for a long time to come. I don’t understand why an important variant of the military option, viz., a swift and decisive surgical strike on the terror infrastructure existing just across the LoC in PoK wasn’t executed within hours of the Uri incident. This would have been the most appropriate response (a) because our armed forces have the requisite capabilities, (b) it woudn’t have hit the common man in Pakistan, (c) it would have had enormous deterrent effect in warding off such misadventures in future and (d) last but not least it would have lent the much needed credibility to Narendra Modi’s repeated assurances to the nation that when he becomes the PM he will not let the perpetrators of terror go unpunished.
Detractors of the option often come up with fears of escalation of the strike into a full-fledged war or even nuclear holocaust. These fears are wholly exaggerated and unfounded. If you carry out a swift strike on some terror training camps along the LoC and retreat after the limited operation it is irrational to even think that the other side will press the nuclear button. We have struck some non-actors’ terror infrastructure and since we do not allow any similar activity on our territory the other side can’t have a similar legitimate target to justify any retaliation. If they still retaliate then they will be exposing the hollowness of their claims that their army or their government doesn’t have any thing to do with those who are running these camps.
If they still choose to go up the escalation ladder I am sure our Forces already have suitable contingencies whereby we can think of extending the operations to the LeT head quarters in Muridke or JeM mastermind’s hideouts in Bahawalpur.
According to globally accepted doctrine the swift retaliatory counter strikes against a terror attack have to be executed within hours of the terror attack. The window for counter action shrinks with every passing hour. Since Uri happened more than a week ago the time appropriate for a counter strike is passé. We shall regret this lapse. Gen VP Malik the former COAS has already gone on record to say that lack of quick retaliatory strike from our side shall encourage the terrorists and their patrons in Pakistan for repeating similar misadventure.
There has been some talk of security lapses on the part of the local unit of the army and calls for investigation. Yes the lapses must be investigated. There are many other ‘Whys’ that too need to be investigated. Why in a place as vulnerable as Uri the Jawans had to live in tents instead of in proper masonry structures? Why the tents were not of fire retardant material? Why thermal imagers were not provided to the unit for monitoring infiltration from PoK side as stated by Lt Gen (R) Syed Ata Hasnain who had served in Uri? Why a protective wall and high bunkers demanded by the Brigade Commander way back in 2003 have not been provided to date? As important as these or perhaps more important is an investigation as to why when Home Minister Rajnath Singh had tweeted about Pakistan’s involvement in the attack, swift surgical strikes on terror camps and launching pads of terrorists just across the LoC weren’t carried out.
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